How to Find and See Tracks

They levitated … 

There is that issue … eventually, most likely sooner, a tracker comes across part of a trail where the animal seems to have no tracks … and yes, they might have jumped, but the tracks you can see don’t mention that … so the missing tracks must be there, right?  And you look some more, and still find none.  So, with admirable determination and instead of giving it a rest, or trying some other method, you keep looking till your brain begins generating false tracks, and you still can’t see any.

What to do when you finally give up and admit it’s not working?

There’s normal every day seeing and then there’s seeing. Have you ever been surprised when suddenly realizing that thing you thought you were looking at was something else entirely?  There’s a Sherlock Holmes / Mary Russell story where Mary glances over the side of their cruise ship and notices an object floating along beside the ship.  As soon as she put the pieces together; moving ship, object keeping pace, her mind snapped into focus and she realized it was a shark fin, and rather large at that.

Or … look at a track … now begin all over again and look to find as many details as you can … Now get real close and do that again.

How many ways are there to see a track?

How many layers of relevant detail do you usually catch?

Sometimes giving up lets you see details you missed at first … “Giving up” as in resting the mind for a few moments and then taking a fresh perspective works pretty darn well but doesn’t solve all the problems with seeing.

This page is about ways to solve those other problems …

Now that the art of seeing has been mentioned … this book is interesting; “Tracking & The Art of Seeing”. Copyright 1999 by Paul Rezendes. ISBN: 0-06-273524-1

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Concept Illustrated: Predicting where the next track will be found…
The idea: The focus of this illustration is reading the current track for clues about where to look for the next

Prediction is one of the highest learning skills and a good way to help your hard-won knowledge settle in.  Learning how to read the current track for the direction of the next nurtures your predictive ability.

One way to practice is by creating two different sets of tracks and comparing them; one set a series of straight-ahead slow and simple steps, the second set similar but with an obvious change in direction.  Now, looking at the second set, where did the change in direction really begin?

In this clip a human right foot gives some idea of how the foot and sand interact when the foot serves as a push point to move the body gently to the left.  Some  signs of this push are left in the track.

This clip does not show all the indicators of a turn … One big and obvious indicator was intentionally left out (that’s a clue)!

Ways to find the next track …

(This is not a complete list)

The Tracking Stick: Ancient technology that works, and has multiple uses.  Can you use it to find the next track while standing?  (More about this on the “Trails” page)

Reading the current track: Can give you some idea of how much energy was used, where the energy was going, how they used the foot, and which direction they moved.

Feel Tracking:  It is possible to sense something left when the track was made (maybe the energy left by the being that made it?) … (no joke).

The author heard about this in an introductory class taught by Tom Brown, Jr..  After dwelling in skepticism for a few years the author finally tried it and discovered Tom was right … It does work!

The author has used this method several times since.  The way it worked the last time: he felt a warm spot in the palm of his hand while it was held an inch or two above an easily visible track.  He was able to find the next several tracks in the series by slowly moving that hand above the soil and paying attention to his body for the same sensation.  The next tracks were only faint flattened areas, slight scuffs, a tiny pebble nudged out of its bed, a damaged spot on a leaf, or faint depressions.  Verification came when an obvious and fresh track left by the same animal was reached.

The trail was first noticed in a shaded area of hard-packed damp sandy/stony topsoil on a dirt road that had been rained on the evening before.  The rain was relevant because no other similar, or larger-sized animals had left tracks in that nice freshly weathered surface along the road in the area.

Feel tracking is especially useful in spots where a step causes minimal substrate movements, or when you don’t have a flashlight and the natural lighting isn’t bringing out details.

The author has heard of this skill being pushed much further …

How to … the basic version:

The first time, just in case, choose a trail it’s ok to damage.

Start with the track last obvious track.  Hold your hand about an inch or two above that track (palm down works for the author), avoid touching the ground.   This works best if you don’t look for tracks as you move your hand, and instead just look a bit to the side and pay attention to your body as you slowly move your above the track, far enough that your hand clears the track and is above undisturbed ground.

When your hand is near or above the track, you may notice a sensation; warmth on the palm, or back of the hand, a tingle in the shoulder muscle, or something else unique to you.  Experiment and persist… learning to tune into this sensation may take some time.

After you’ve learned the sensation begin searching for the next track the same way, while paying attention to the same location on your body where you first noticed the sensation.  Sometimes a series of short arcs across the area works best.  When you get that sensation again examine the area under your palm closely, looking for the track, it may be faint.

To follow a trail of hard to see tracks you repeat this process, marking the location of each track (without disturbing the trail), until you begin to find obvious tracks again.

Another experiment: What are the limits for this sense?

A digression to share a memory sparked by writing that last line: one summer day, walking along a favorite dirt road, and working on inner stillness, the author suddenly found himself thinking about wolves.  No sparking object or thought, just one moment stillness … the next it was almost like the author was up on the ridge observing himself walking down the road.  Who knows what that really was?  As far as field guides go, there haven’t been wolves up here this century, or the last.  Well yes, but there was that one year in the early 21st century when this set of huge canine tracks crossed the area … and a wolf made the news when it was killed by a car a mile two away down on the highway.  So if your mind ever suddenly switches gears in a similar way you might pause to ask yourself what is going on.

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Concept Illustrated: Dust Compressions (Dull on Shiny by a Toe Pad)

The idea: Tracks are created in every interaction between a foot and a surface, and a bit beyond that.  This illustration is meant to demonstrate a track that was left on a surface covered by a thin layer of dust particles so small you only see them when your eye is at the correct angle to catch the light, it also hints at a way to see that track (if you were the camera…)

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Concept Illustrated: Increasing the Visibility of Tracks by Adjusting Light and Shadow

The Idea:   This illustration is about a technique to reveal faint tracks and details.

Shadow is what makes tracks visible … and reveals the details.  In the dark, or in heavy shade, and even during the day when clouds or angle of the sun reduce the amount of shadow, tracks and details may be much less visible, or worse.

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Concept Illustrated: Track on ‘Bare’ Rock (Red Fox Front Foot)

The idea: Even on “bare” rock some tracks can be found …

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Concept Illustrated: Using Stone Rolls

Nudging ... Square-ish

The idea:  Noticing stones that have been disturbed, or knocked clear out of their soil beds is another way to find tracks, or follow a trail.  This method can sometimes speed up the tracking process a bit.

(Yeah, ok, the photo’s an exaggerated case, but it’s the same as one made by a foot and smaller stone.  Road graders leave sign also. The shadow is the author and camera.)

Soil conditions, and the way those affect soil response, are constantly changing.  In some soil conditions tracks are easy to find, in others not so much.

In this area rain can wash away faint tracks and make deep tracks fade and slump.  This soil drains quickly, but can stay damp and tends to pack.  This packed damp soil will retain it’s rigidity until it dries a bit, and that depends on the weather.  This soil can become so packed and settled that the hoof of an adult deer, walking after a rain, sometimes disturbes only uppermost objects on the surface, or will leave only a faint compression with a pair of toe-tip indentations.

When soil conditions hold only faint tracks …  Dullings, scuffs, slight depressions, etc. … It can take much longer to read or follow even a section of a trail.

Sometimes it is useful to minimize the time it takes to find the tracks you need to see.  How?  There are several strategies.  Noticing stone rolls is especially easy when animals have crossed open stony ground after a soaking rain has settled the surface  (where there is no layer of leaves or pine needles).

What happens to the soil when it rains?  Ever watch?  That’s a good place to start.  In this area the rain carries fine soil into and seals the gaps where embedded stones and soil surface meet, and rounds the edges of empty holes already present.  The surface will gradually weather from this state unless something has disturbed it.

The least sign left when someone does disturb this surface can be faint.  As little as a tiny open crack at what was a rain-sealed boundary of soil and stone, a faint dulling or a slight depression.

 More obvious sign can include stones knocked completely out of their beds, leaving a patchy trail of disturbed stones that can often be easily seen, after a little practice.

Like most other track features there are variations: large stone rolls and tiny … Old stone and fresh … Some slightly rocked in their beds, and others pushed deeper … And stones so large they kick back.  Fortunately there is dust everywhere.

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Concept Illustrated: Lifts and Drops as Track Features and Indicators of Direction of Foot Movement

A “Lift”

The idea:  Illustrate the process, and usefulness of “Lifts” (when things stick to the foot and are lifted from their original position on the ground).  Lifts may give clues about direction of foot travel.

Soil conditions are constantly varying. Lifts can happen in almost any soil when conditions favor.  In the photo above it is 7:40 a.m. on April 28 at about 9,000 feet.  The previous evening the sand had been damp, during the night it froze.  The sun rose at about 6 a.m. and had been shining on this spot just long enough to melt most of a shallow layer of overnight snow, and thaw a thin surface layer of the sand.  The known facts make it an interesting example for reading the age of a track.

Lifts can range from a single sand grain up to a chunk as large as everything else stuck on the bottom and sides of the foot.  These can sometimes be carried up and away.  Attached to the foot this material can distort the next track and even carry useful information from the track even back home … Sherlock Holmes could deduce something about where a shoe had been from the kind of mud caked on.

A “Lift” and a “Drop”

And … “Drops” (when these things stuck to the foot eventually fall, are knocked off, or stick to some other object) have uses also.  For example, they sometimes indicate the foot’s direction of travel.

When the author was a child he learned to avoid certain places with clay-rich ground, because walking became progressively difficult as sticky mud built-up on his shoes (and slippery?  Ever try greasy clay mud skating?).  Once back on dryer ground an obvious trail of mud was left as chunks fell off with every step.

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Concept Illustrated: The Tracking Stick

The Idea: One way to find a hard to see track.

This method can also speed up how long it takes to follow a trail.

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Concept Illustrated: How Small and Still Readable?
The idea:  Raise a question; What are the limitations?

Ants leave tracks also!  If you look where the white arrow is pointing, there is a sand grain coated with mud that the right rear leg is just pressing into. Now look at the lower photo.

In this next photo, the ants’ right rear leg left an indentation in the mud. If you look a little more closely, you can see the imprint left by the spur on that joint, it branches off and angles back from the darker line imprinted by the leg. (You can see it a little more clearly in the insert).  If you look closely there actually is a trail, look at the insert below, in the area  above and to the right of the mark left by the ant’s right rear leg, see the two little dimples?  And there’s more…

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The Other Concepts:

Page: The Concepts of Tracking… The Essentials
The Translucent Foot

Page: The Age of Tracks… How long ago?
Color Change

Page: Foot and Body Movements … How body movement creates and is reflected in the tracks, and how to read it from them.
Canine Claw Tip Leaves Track in Fine Sand

Page: How To Read Tracks … (and trails) – The problem isn’t lack of information
Simple Tire Track and Direction of Travel
True Track (Canine Toe Pad)

Page: The Invisible Skills … Think you’ve gone as far as you can?
Problem Solving by Baby Steps
The Only Way to Get Anywhere Else…

Page: Species … Tracks of distinct species and track features unique to them
Deer Foot – One Walking Step
Red Fox Front and Rear Feet – Side Trot

Page: Track Features … The story is revealed by the details
Pressure Against the Track Wall (Canine Toe Pad)
The Wave, Simple?
The Ridge Between Canine Front Toes
The Layer of Sand in Contact With The Foot

Page: Trails and Sign … Reading all the layers
The Human Trail

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